Get­ting slightly lost in an am­bi­tious mo­saic of edgy ur­ban per­spec­tives

Paul Larkin’s novel fea­tures a pow­er­ful de­pic­tion of Dublin’s north in­ner city, but many con­tra­dic­tions, anom­alies and unan­swered ques­tions mean its po­ten­tial is not fully re­alised

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOK REVIEWS - Joanne Hay­den

Éilis from the Flats By Paul Larkin

‘IDalkey Ar­chive Press, 316pp, £10.50

s it not blind­ingly ob­vi­ous that I’m suf­fer­ing from civic grief?” Éilis, the 16-year-old mys­tic at the cen­tre of Paul Larkin’s coun­ter­cul­tural and con­found­ing new novel, asks a psy­cho­an­a­lyst. She’s ref­er­enc­ing Dos­to­evsky – like oth­ers in the book, she’s a fan – but she’s also giv­ing voice to one of the novel’s re­cur­ring themes. Civic grief is per­va­sive among Larkin’s char­ac­ters as they nav­i­gate their tur­bu­lent, over­lap­ping worlds: Dublin’s gang­land; a doomed complex of flats; a my­opic pub­lic ser­vice television sta­tion.

Éilis from the Flats com­prises an am­bi­tious mo­saic of per­spec­tives: whistle­blow­ers; bu­reau­crats; goths; pow­er­ful and small-time crim­i­nals; ordinary, well-in­ten­tioned peo­ple liv­ing in Dublin’s ne­glected north in­ner city. Some of these are more cred­i­ble than oth­ers. The young pro­tag­o­nist – a faith healer and Gaeil­geoir as well as a seer – re­mains an enigma de­spite or be­cause of the con­sis­tent emphasis on her beauty, in­tel­li­gence, ide­al­ism and charisma.

Éilis is rev­ered by her neigh­bours and friends. The parish pri­est calls her his grace child. Jimmy Hef­fer­nan – a so­cio­pathic drug lord with guards as well as the crime cor­re­spon­dent for Em­pire Television in his pay – is ob­sessed with her. Ini­tially he wants to marry her. Later he wants to de­stroy her, but not be­fore mak­ing her the face of Con­nolly’s, his gim­micky night­club dec­o­rated with Cit­i­zen Army prints and stat­ues of the Easter Ris­ing lead­ers.

Hef­fer­nan claims he’s gone straight but Éilis writes a man­u­script – “pre­sented as a story, in the third per­son” – ex­pos­ing his mur­der­ous crim­i­nal­ity. This doc­u­ment makes up part of the novel and is read by a young re­searcher at Em­pire and by his men­tor, Tommy Baker, a veteran jour­nal­ist and chronic al­co­holic.

Larkin’s writ­ing is at its most fluid when in­side the heads of Jimmy and Tommy. A flawed man try­ing to in­dict the drug lord and fight his own urge to drink, Tommy is both fa­mil­iar and dis­tinc­tive.

Sim­i­larly, the scenes in Em­pire, where cre­ativ­ity and courage are threat­ened by of­fi­cial­dom and spine­less­ness, are among the novel’s most im­me­di­ate and com­pelling.

Larkin has ex­pe­ri­ence in pub­lic ser­vice broad­cast­ing. Born in Sal­ford and now liv­ing in Done­gal, he’s a for­mer jour­nal­ist and film-maker who has worked in the BBC and RTÉ. He also spent five years in the Dan­ish mer­chant navy. Since leav­ing jour­nal­ism, he has had an im­pres­sive ca­reer as a trans­la­tor.

His ex­cel­lent 2018 trans­la­tion of A For­tu­nate Man, by the No­bel Prize-win­ning Dan­ish writer Hen­rik Pon­top­p­i­dan, helped bring an im­por­tant and strik­ingly cur­rent Nordic clas­sic to an English-speak­ing au­di­ence. The novel was orig­i­nally pub­lished se­ri­ally be­tween 1898 and 1904 and Larkin’s seam­less, em­pa­thetic trans­la­tion co­in­cided with the re­lease of a screen adap­ta­tion di­rected by Bille Au­gust.

In its de­scrip­tions of char­ac­ters’s ap­pear­ances and its om­ni­scient point of view, Éilis from the Flats is rem­i­nis­cent of a 19th-cen­tury novel. Its streams of con­scious­ness are loosely modernist. The way it fore­grounds its fic­tional sta­tus gives it a post­mod­ern slant. But its ex­per­i­men­tal form sits un­easily along­side its ro­man­ti­ci­sa­tion of Ir­ish­ness and the Ir­ish lan­guage, and its prob­lem­atic por­tray­als of women.

Al­though the edgy ur­ban set­ting is vividly evoked, al­though Éilis men­tions Kate Tem­pest and the Oc­cupy move­ment, al­though the scenes in Con­nolly’s and Em­pire could be hap­pen­ing right now, the de­vout Catholi­cism of sev­eral of the char­ac­ters be­longs to an Ire­land of 30 or 40 years ago. No one ques­tions the ex­cep­tion­ally close re­la­tion­ship be­tween Éilis and the be­nign parish pri­est, who ar­ranges a stint in the Done­gal Gaeltacht for his grace child, drives her there him­self and at one point lingers out­side her bed­room door, sprin­kling holy wa­ter and say­ing prayers.

Char­ac­ters are de­scribed as hav­ing a “West of Ire­land face,” the “black hair of the Ar­madas” – a goth, un­fath­omably, refers to Éilis’s “Celtic autism”. Some gen­er­al­i­sa­tions veer to­wards es­sen­tial­ism. The re­searcher’s girl­friend, who also works in Em­pire but un­like her male col­leagues is never shown work­ing or dis­cussing work, ref­er­ences the “urge that women have to change them, to tame them”. Them meaning men.

Tommy Baker is scathing about Em­pire’s fe­male em­ploy­ees: “pert, pre­co­cious, self-ob­sessed young women with skirts out­ra­geously short at ten o’clock in a new day; fem­i­nists they claimed . . .”.

Dur­ing a meet­ing, a sec­re­tary rhap­sodises about Tommy, telling her boss, “we all just want to take him home, clean him up, and look af­ter him”. We meaning women.

It reads like Tommy’s fan­tasy, but is it? It’s dif­fi­cult to fig­ure out which sec­tions have been “writ­ten” by Éilis and if, in these sec­tions, she’s rec­ol­lect­ing or fore­telling events. This lack of clar­ity weak­ens the novel, as does the overuse of di­rect ad­dress in di­a­logue. The char­ac­ters con­stantly, un­nec­es­sar­ily, use each other’s names.

Éilis from the Flats en­com­passes some fine writ­ing and pow­er­ful de­pic­tions of ur­ban poverty and the dam­age of in­di­vid­u­al­ism and unchecked cap­i­tal­ism – its civic grief is heart­felt – but its many con­tra­dic­tions, anom­alies and unan­swered ques­tions mean its po­ten­tial is un­re­alised.

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